Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen sustained peaceful protests, with tens of thousands of people marching for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. While the protests initially were catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, the protests since have expanded to bring awareness to the widespread problems of police brutality against Black people and the systemic racist structures that underpin our society.
It can be a difficult topic and one that isn’t easy to talk about. Still, a hopeful sign of progress is that people who have never spoken up or about it before are finally using their voice. They follow in the footsteps of those who have long been vocal about issues of race and inclusion in America.
One of those people is the late Stan Lee, the longtime EIC and then Chairman and then cheerleader and elder statesman for Marvel. I figured it was a good time to remind everyone that he wrote this in one of Stan’s Soapboxes in 1968 – the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered and riots broke out as a result:
His words are unequivocal, direct, and make it clear where he stands. It’s worth noting that he signed off on that Stan’s Soapbox segment not with his usual “Excelsior!” but with “Pax et Justitia”: “Peace and justice.” While Lee was a man who leaned toward a sunny outlook and a hopeful demeanor in the vast majority of his communications with the Marvel audience, his “True Believers,” this is one of the few times he set that aside to make it clear he knew there would be no peace without justice.
This wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that Marvel and Lee would be on the right side of history regarding civil rights and fighting racism. Consider what happened early in his career in 1941, when Marvel Comics, then known as Timely Comics, published Captain America Comics #1 and the cover depicted Captain America punching Hitler right in the face. Both the cover and character were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the sons of Jewish immigrants. It was a bold statement that resulted in Simon and Kirby and Timely Comics receiving death threats.
In 2020, a cover showing Captain America fighting Nazis seems an obvious thing to portray. But March of 1941 was 10 months before the U.S. even officially entered World War II. Today, we look back at WWII and the Greatest Generation with rose-colored glasses, taking a romantic view of it as being a time in which we were a country full of noble civilians and soldiers alike all firmly against the rise of fascism. The truth is that it was a lot like it is now, with many Americans adopting a “not my problem, not my fight” attitude and America itself hanging back from joining the fight until a full two years into the war. Plenty of American citizens felt we shouldn’t join the war effort at all. At the time of the publishing of that comic, Gallup polls showed 33% of Americans still firmly felt we should stay out of it. Depicting Captain America, our Star-Spangled Avenger positioned as a symbol of American patriotism and literally wrapped in the American flag, punching Hitler was a radical political statement from Simon and Kirby.
While Lee wasn’t involved with the creation of Captain America, he was with Timely Comics at the time (he would make his comic book debut as a text-filler on Captain America Comics #3 two months later). It’s not a stretch to say Lee would have heard about the threats to Simon, Kirby, and the company. Being a young Jewish kid hearing of his colleagues receiving death threats for taking a stance against fascism, against a war in which his own Jewish people were being massacred had to have left a mark. As Joe Simon himself said in an interview with the NY Daily News in a 2011 interview, “Captain America was designed to be the perfect foil for the Führer, and the Nazi Bund didn’t like the fact that we were making fun of their great leader.” The Nazi Bund, of course, being the pro-Nazi organization in the United States at the time.
Inarguably, coming up in the industry around colleagues who were so clear in their ethics and unafraid influenced Lee, making him an outspoken and vocal defender of human rights and anti-racism and bigotry. Whether or not that was a formative moment for him, outspokenness was a throughline in his career.
Just look at the response Lee penned in 1969 to an angry letter from a white reader who complained about politics being in his comics (the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess):
As an aside here, and one I’m sure isn’t lost on anyone who just read the above exchange, it’s deeply disturbing how exactly the argument being had 50 years ago is being repeated verbatim today. Half a century later and we’ve still barely moved the needle.
Still, that never stopped Lee from speaking out against racism and bigotry, or using his pen to fight it on the page. As in the Silver Surfer comic referenced above, Lee kept pushing for the world he wanted to see in the splashy pages of his comics. The X-Men were created as an allegory of the Civil Rights struggle. He helped co-write and led the creation of Black Panther, who debuted in 1966 as the first Black comic book character to appear in mainstream American comics at a time in which much of society was still segregated. When it was published, bundles of Marvel comics got sent back with white comic book distributors wanting no part of the Black character-led comic Lee and Jack Kirby had co-created. And he often said of his greatest character, Spider-Man, that the beauty of Spider-Man being drawn as having a full face mask – a rarity at the time of his creation – was that any kid could imagine themselves as Spidey, no matter their race. Anyone could be under the mask.
Lee continued being that vocal defender of human rights and equality well after he had retired from comics, up to the last years of his life. Consider this video he put out in 2017 at the age of 94. His stances were just as clear, his determination just as strong:
He gave us joy, a guiding light and force for good for 95 years. I can’t help but think that were he still alive, he’d have already hopped on another Stan’s Soapbox and supported the protestors. As always on the right side of history.